Eugene Weekly : Books : 10.18.07

Love, Protection, Loss, Recovery
Cai Emmons’ second novel delivers on several levels

In the middle of my second year in the UO’s literary nonfiction program, I took a break in the form of a fiction writing class taught by the creative writing department’s Cai Emmons. The information and insight she shared about first-person writing forever altered the ways I write and read.

Yet in neither of her books — His Mother’s Son, the 2003 novel that won the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, and her hot-off-the-presses The Stylist (Harper Perennial, $13.95) — does Emmons write using that point of view. “I frankly am not that comfortable working in first person,” she tells me, though The Stylist began its life with that perspective. But “the story needed to widen out,” Emmons explains, so she made a move to third person. She could then add the point of view of another main character, which meant, she said, “the consciousness doubled.”

That other character made Emmons’ mother ask her, “What am I supposed to tell my friends your book is about?” She’s not alone: the book’s protagonist, Hayden Risley, a young, tattooed and self-centered hair stylist in Hoboken, shares that confusion. So what is the book about?

One blustery winter New Jersey day, Emory begins work at Hayden’s salon, but Emory isn’t quite what Hayden expected from a new coworker. This salon space gives the author a canvas; the reader can feel her reveling in a variety of descriptions that make the hair salon a purely female preserve, a sanctuary away from the multitude of concerns that otherwise occupy a busy woman’s brain.

But does Emory fit in this safe space of lotions, shimmering purple capes and glamorous magazines? Hayden feels uncertain and then aggressively disturbed by her new coworker’s identity — whatever that identity might be. Hayden’s own identity seems up in the air; she’s unmoored, a deracinated young woman trying to live her life the way she thinks adults live. And Emory’s uncertainty troubles Hayden, stirring up emotions about her own issues.

The Stylist investigates gender expression for a while as Hayden gets to know Emory, but that’s a gentle thread in the larger tale of Hayden’s tenuous reconnection with the family she abandoned just after her mother died. Again, Emmons shows her strength at scene-setting with her flashback depictions of the Risley domestic life — or rather the life of the Risley girls and their mother; their father, who wrote himself up from the working class, hardly ever comes home. When he does, all he seems to care about is the girls’ intellectual development. That’s odd considering that their mother earned a doctoral degree in art history and rarely uses her knowledge. When Hayden tries to interest her distant father in his fragile wife’s internal trauma and chaos — she’s depressed, possibly suicidal — he patronizes Hayden and ignores her concerns.

The book, set soon after 9/11, also focuses in its first half on the fierce love and protection Hayden feels for the wounded Manhattan. She lives in Hoboken and works there, but she adores the city she can see across the water; like her mother, however, it’s too big and vulnerable for Hayden’s love to protect.

In the second half of the book, a now-bonded Hayden and Emory head to Costa Rica, where Hayden’s father has injured his ankle and needs help getting back to the U.S. Both Hayden and Emory soften away from the States, and as Hayden begins to learn how she has affected other people, the book’s perspectives open up as well. Suddenly, we hear from Hayden’s father, from people first seeing Emory, from a housekeeper, from pretty much anyone encountering the main characters. That lends the tropical half of the book a panoramic lens for major plot development and the denouement.

Not to focus too much on the technical aspects of the writing. Will you, dear readers, enjoy the book? I think so. The honesty of Hayden’s mistakes and her stumbling toward rejoining her family, combined with the glimpse of transgender issues, show Emmons’ strength at depicting rounded characters. And Emmons interweaves those narratives with an achingly beautiful love letter to New York and a description of gorgeous, surreal Costa Rica. A stranger comes to town, some strangers leave town — and everyone gropes in fits and starts toward forgiveness and reconciliation. That, Cai Emmons can tell her mother, is what this book is about.

Cai Emmons celebrates the release of The Stylist with a reading, signing, reception and raffle at 5 pm Saturday, Oct. 20, at Tsunami Books.